Despite the two dueling NBC and ABC Town Halls on Thursday, it feels like the really big story dropped on Wednesday. In a blazing headline, the New York Post announced that they had gotten a hold of Hunter Biden’s laptop/hard drive, which contains emails, photographs, and and scandalous videos. The Smoking Gun email - as the Post called it - was one that suggested Hunter Biden introduced his Dad to a Ukrainian oligarch that he was doing business with.
The problem is that the email does not actually suggest that a meeting happened; it simply thanks Biden for inviting him to Washington, D.C., and for giving him the opportunity to spend time together and meet his Dad. It’s written as if there is hope of a meeting happening, rather than one had occurred.
There are a few things that were really relevant to how this narrative played out:
The story itself is incredibly sketchy and makes no real sense.
The piece was immediately identified as a potential source of Russian disinformation upon its publication.
Social media companies looked at point 2 and decided to limit distribution of the story.
So, we can go one at a time. First, this is the narrative: A Delaware computer repair store owner said that Hunter Biden dropped off three laptops there in 2019. However, he cannot be sure that Biden dropped the laptops off, because the owner of the store is legally blind. Despite that, he billed Hunter Biden for his services.
Keep in mind that Hunter Biden was living in L.A. at the time, which means he flew from L.A. to Delaware, dropped off the laptops, and then never returned to pick them up. The owner in possession of the laptops says that he called the FBI, but his story goes back and forth between whether or not he reached out to the FBI or if the FBI contacted him first. Nevertheless, the owner makes a copy of the hard drive of the laptop, and then gives it to Rudy Giuliani’s attorney (yes, the President’s personal attorney has his own personal attorney), and then Giuliani gave a copy to the New York Post (Steve Bannon also fits into this somehow).
In general, these are bizarro circumstances and one that should make a publication hesitant to run a story. And, it also makes the second point even more relevant. You see, when you get a copy of something like a hard drive with files on it, what you generally do in journalism is some sort of forensic analysis. Each file would produce metadata that you could look at and use to determine the validity of the hard drive’s contents. When you get into the Hunter Biden laptop metadata, it gets iffy:
According to the Post, Biden dropped off the laptop on April 12, 2019, meaning that the repair shop owner held onto them for five months and then started trying to recover the data (and billing him for it on April 12, 2019). Metadata can be forged, and can also get messed up when reviewing documents, so it doesn't nuke the story but it’s a red flag.
However, there is a nuclear reactor cooking in another part of the narrative. In the Post’s story, they published a Federal District Court’s subpoena for a single laptop (yes, they left the other two alone) and a separate, external hard drive. In the subpoena, the District Court published the serial numbers, and from the serial number of the hard drive, you can see that the warranty is for three years and it expires on April 22, 2022. Meaning, the hard drive was not Hunter Biden’s because it was purchased after he had already dropped off the laptops (assuming, again, that he dropped them off at all). This means the repair shop owner bought the hard drive, which - according to the serial number - runs for $80, and then charged Biden for only $75 to recover the data from his laptop. In other words, the repair shop was taking a loss on performing a service for Biden. (This gets broken down into even more detail in this thread, but be warned: It is highly technical and heady).
It’s at this point where the story falls apart and gets nuked by a sensible editor. In fact, both the New York Times and New York Magazine have scoops about how the Post’s newsroom did not want to publish the story, with the actual author of the story - Bruce Golding - refusing to put his name on it.
The sketchiness of the sourcing aside, the larger narrative makes the Post’s decision to publish the story even more alarming. For one, the gas company that Hunter Biden lobbied for had its emails hacked by Russia earlier this year. Couple that with the fact that Rudy Giuliani - who fed these emails to the Post - has been hanging out with a Russian agent (who is currently sanctioned for conducting election interference) for the better part of a year. That brings us to this absolute, must-read story on how Giuliani is being worked by the Russians. Contrast the bylines for this story - which includes Shane Harris, the best national security reporter in the country - with the bylines for the Post story, which consisted of a former Sean Hannity producer and a reporter who had never written anything prior to the Hunter Biden story.
I think the Giuliani angle here is really important, for two reasons: First, it is pretty clear that some of the materials published by the Post were doctored. Even leaving the metadata aside, when you pull their PDF of the supposed email from the Ukrainian oligarch, it looks weird. You’ll have to go to the actual Scribd link of the email and download it, but if you do, open it as a PDF and zoom in on the “VP” in the upper right hand corner of the email. It’s actually an image, and it becomes heavily pixelated when you zoom in, suggesting that it was manipulated. You can go to your own Outlook client and save a draft email as a PDF and it is almost impossible to get it to look like the email in the Post story.
I know, we are deep in the weeds now. But it gets a little crazier: As we said above, the FBI issued a subpoena for one of the three laptops and a hard drive. The store owner claims he brought the matter to the FBI’s attention some time in September of 2019, but the FBI’s subpoena came in December of 2019. That time frame links up with a story we got last year: Law enforcement was conducting a criminal investigation of Giuliani for his work in Ukraine. It seems likely - given that we have heard exactly zero things about there being a subpoena out there for Hunter Biden - that the District Court subpoena of the laptop and hard drive is related to an investigation into Giuliani and his work with foreign nationals. What a wild ride.
I think the major point to drive home, however, is that the entire idea that Joe Biden pushed out the Ukrainian prosecutor to help out his son is a conspiracy theory on the same level as “Bush did 911.” The Republican Committee on Homeland Security did an entire investigation of this and released a report last month outlining that although Hunter Biden definitely trades on his father’s name in his foreign dealings, Vice-President Biden never altered public policy to favor his son. During that investigation multiple officials - many of them working in the Trump Administration - testified that Biden’s push to have the prosecutor removed actually made it more likely that Burisma would be investigated and Hunter Biden put in jeopardy. The conspiracy theory itself relies on the truth being muddy, and it cites to real events: Biden did push to have Viktor Shokin removed because he was seen as corrupt by virtually every European power, and more than a few Republican U.S. senators.
We are at the point where the New York Post - probably the country’s oldest newspaper - is now pushing what could be Russian disinformation and a conspiracy theory cooked up by foreign nationals. What a stupid time to be alive.
Lastly, what about point three, where the social media companies limited the spread of the story and lead to an even greater outrage? To be completely honest, I cannot bring myself to care. It seems like it was mostly counterproductive, but we are actually living in a world where Republicans are endorsing Qanon candidates and are simultaneously complaining about Twitter and Facebook cutting off the legs of a dubious story. I do not care, at this point, if Facebook and Twitter redirect every Fox News article to a video of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey smoking a crack pipe with Hunter Biden. As we are learning with the current Supreme Court nomination, Republicans are doing a certain thing because they have power. Facebook and Twitter can do things because they have power. Put the pearls down and walk away.
The New York Times has their big case against Trump and it is fantastic.
I hope you all have a great week. I’ll probably be back for the debate.